We’ve all heard the common myths why women aren’t in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers: young girls aren’t interested in such rigorous topics, or women just don’t perform as well in them as men. Let’s be clear: None of those excuses is based on fact. The point still remains that women are largely underrepresented in these professions. Since 1990, STEM employment has increased by almost 80%, from 9.7 million to 17.3 million STEM jobs. While women comprise 47% of all workers in the U.S., they represent only 24% of the STEM workforce. The percentage of women in STEM is not equally spread out among the disciplines; while women make up three-quarters of the healthcare practitioners and technicians, there is still a shortage of women in other STEM careers, including engineering, computer, and physics.
This isn’t just a conversation for the women. All people must be included in the discussion of how to make STEM an achievable path for young girls and women. This guide discusses the gender divide, its contributing factors and contains some available resources and college programs.
Why are women so underrepresented in STEM?
The reasons women don’t pursue STEM careers vary by person and can be attributed to a number of influences. However, some stand out among the list.
Exposure and access
Nearly 20% of American students attend rural schools. Students attending schools in rural areas face several unique barriers to accessing a STEM education not felt by their urban counterparts, including a shortage of math and science teachers and a significant turnover rate among the teachers they do have. They also do not always have access to high-quality STEM learning opportunities that other schools have, which leaves their students behind in both exposure and education. Pair this lack of access with the barriers young girls feel about their abilities in the subjects, and you see a detrimental pattern forming. Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, mentioned the possible bias in educators that leads them to favor boys for STEM activities over girls. She said, “a girl who tries a STEM assignment or activity and doesn’t do well the first time maybe makes an assumption that she’s not good at it because she’s a girl rather than because of how the subject is being introduced or taught. To her.”
All people must be included in the discussion of how to make STEM an achievable path for young girls and women.
Dr. Carol O’Donnell, Director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, spoke about the idea of a “STEM education ecosystem” that branches out past the school and into homes and the community. The Smithsonian provides an array of free e-books and digital resources that inspire in children all across the country the desire to learn. Such a noble effort is sometimes spoiled when you think about all the students who still do not have access to these resources. Many students in more rural parts of the U.S. do not have reliable internet access in their homes. In fact, around 24 million people do not have access to 25Mbps internet, meaning that the STEM education ecosystem falls short in the home. Limited resources and the lack of internet access of these rural communities perpetuate the ongoing issue.
Young girls often struggle with feeling like they don’t belong in these disciplines, as well as self-efficacy or the belief that they will succeed in the field. In fact, these are some of the most cited reasons for the limited representation of women in STEM careers. Dr. O’Donnell stated another important factor: mentorship for young girls. It’s one thing to provide them with access to these disciplines; it’s another thing entirely to supply them with role models and mentors that will inspire and motivate them.
It helps young girls to see people who look like them in these positions, so they realize it isn’t out of reach. Dr. O’Donnell spoke about her own journey and her love for science. Carrying an engineering notebook around as they played by the stream behind her house, she set out to be a science teacher because that was the role model she had seen. She said, “that was all I really thought I was capable of. Looking back, I wish that I had more opportunities for female role models who were in engineers or scientists positions.”
Putting mentorship programs across the country into effect is essential to connecting young girls to these career options and showing them nothing is out of reach. These environments give young girls a place where they can learn, engage and grow.
Inadequate collegiate support
Without adequate collegiate support, recruitment and retention of women into STEM fields will remain low. Colleges and universities steering their female students into STEM majors and emphasising the real-life applications of STEM is another way to address the drastic gender difference. These institutions should ensure they’re providing support by presenting students with female role models working in STEM, using inclusive messaging, and creating a learning environment that encourages confidence building when obstacles or challenges are faced in the curriculum.
Some colleges and universities offer STEM support, like the University of California, San Diego and Smith College, but these practices are not widely adopted yet. Another part of the process colleges should be concerned with is how women feel within their STEM-related programs. In fact, statistics show only 12.6% of female college students graduate with a bachelor’s in science and engineering, and nearly half of all women in STEM careers drop out of the field within the first 10 years.
To ensure that their students succeed in achieving their degrees, colleges should make strides to ensure that the sometimes masculine or agentic environments don’t turn women away before they start. Many women have stated that the social climate and lack of advancement opportunities are some of the main reasons that they choose to leave their field or degree.
Large pay gaps
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, white women employed in STEM fields earn 72% of what their male counterparts earn, with black (62%) and Latina (61%) women earning even less. This pay gap decreases as the education level increases, but even at the doctorate level, women still earn about 20% less than their male colleagues. These pay gaps and other workplace challenges, like gender biases and poor work-life balance, make retaining female employees in STEM fields challenging.
Why companies should hire women into STEM positions
According to the Kauffman Foundation, women-led private technology companies were found to be more capital-efficient, achieving a 35% higher ROI. First Round Capital discovered tech companies with a female founder perform 63% better than those with founding teams wholly composed of men.
Companies are rewarded for their gender diversity, and not just by a rush of public support. Women-led start-ups may actually make more money. There is a statistically significant correlation between the innovation of the company and the diversity of its leaders. That’s not all: The same study found that companies with more diversity reported revenue that was approximately 19 points higher than companies that lack women.
Why women should pursue a career in STEM
STEM jobs have been demonstrated to be a reliable and significant economic growth driver, with a strong correlation between gender diversity and earnings. Diversifying these careers introduces a variety of different experiences and ideas that will enhance the products of these fields as the needs of more people are considered. Furthermore, women of all races being present in these careers helps to ensure that the research being done is unbiased and that different perspectives are being considered.
The narrative of women’s subpar performance and lack of interest is unfounded and wholly invalid. There are legitimate reasons that women are not represented in these careers, and thankfully, more and more companies and private entities are recognizing the shortcomings. Meaning the road to STEM careers for women will ultimately be easier in the future.
Technology is shaping the world now, and women should have a hand in it in the future.
Encouraging young girls to pursue STEM